Whilst working in the toy floor of a New York department store in the 1950s Therese (Rooney Mara) finds herself bewitched by Carol (Cate Blanchett), an older woman on the verge of divorce who is shopping for her daughter’s Christmas present. Both feeling an unspoken attraction to one another they form a friendship, one that starts with lunches and drives but culminates with the two taking a long road trip together. On the road Carol tries to maintain her poise as her divorce and custody battle wages on at home and the younger Therese tries to define herself beyond her temporary job and the boyfriend that she does not love. Amidst the women’s internal struggles is the ever more potent issue; that of their growing feelings for one another and whether either will ever confess to or act upon them.
Carol is a deeply romantic film. Every little detail harkens back to a more romantic age but one in which this particular romance would have been taboo. The expectations for women as a whole in the 1950s were very different to now and for lesbians even more so. This is evident in the hesitation with which the two women reveal their feelings even to themselves let alone each other. Carol in particular is a woman who hides behind a public face. She is never one to appear flustered while Therese’s face gives away her every inner thoughts whether she realises it or not. The combination of the two, an uncertain young woman and her confident older pairing, is utterly mesmerising to watch. Carol is clearly in control and it is easy to see why Therese looks up to her as both a role model and a romantic partner.
Todd Haynes has directed this love story in a way that can only be described as romantic. Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy has adapted Patricia Highsmith’s with a sparing use of dialogue and as such Haynes has accentuated the connection between the women with careful close-ups of hands, eyes, and mouths. We see every shy glance and tentative touch, we see as Therese admires Carol’s strong femininity and the way Carol watches Therese in return. There is an incredible intimacy to most scenes even when the two women are simply sitting across from one another sipping coffee.
The book has made the transition to the screen without damage. Therese is now a passionate photographer, think Vivian Maier, rather than set designer which is well suited to cinematic storytelling and allows Haynes to literally show us Carol through her eyes. The film also allows for scenes without Therese to show Carol’s interactions with Abby (Sarah Paulson). I welcome this controversial move as it softens Carol somewhat who often came across as cold in the original, fantastic novel and gives her a rounder character. All the better to see why Therese fell so hard for her.
In conclusion Carol is a beautiful troubled love story. A timeless piece of cinema as beautiful as it is moving.
Carol screens again at the festival on 17th October but is sold out.